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The Years of La Dolce Vita

La Dolce Vita
Written by Aksel Ritenis

The Birth of Celebrity Culture in Focus at the Estorick Collection

30 April to 29 June 2014

La Dolce Vita

This summer the Estorick Collection presents The Years of La Dolce Vita, an exhibition which explores one of the most fertile periods in contemporary Italian cinema and the simultaneous explosion of celebrity culture. The eighty photographs, on view from 30 April to 29 June 2014, capture the dolce vita (literally ‘sweet life’) enjoyed by Italian movie stars and Hollywood ‘royalty’ working in Rome during the 1960s.

The 1950s and ’60s were a golden era in Italian film when directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Federico Fellini produced some of their most famous movies, including the latter’s iconic La Dolce Vita (1960). Hollywood stars John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Lauren Bacall and Liz Taylor, to name but a few, frequented the capital as American filmmakers were lured to Rome by the comparative inexpensiveness of its Cinecittà studios, and it was here that such epic productions as Ben-Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963) were shot. In the evenings, however, the focus of Rome’s movie culture – as well as the lenses of its paparazzi – shifted to the bars and restaurants lining the city’s exclusive Via Veneto and the popular haunts of glamorous celebrities such as Alain Delon, Kirk Douglas and Audrey Hepburn (fig. 1), transforming Rome’s streets into ‘an open-air film set’.

The exhibition juxtaposes images of this real-life dolce vita taken by Marcello Geppetti, one of its most skilful chroniclers, with behind-the-scenes shots from the set of the eponymous film by its cameraman, Arturo Zavattini. Together, these photographs vividly evoke an era of extraordinary glamour, creativity and decadence, yet also challenge us to consider our response to the media’s obsession with celebrity, the invasive nature of the images, and the ‘guilty pleasure’ we take in them.

The term paparazzo is taken from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, being the name of a character inspired by a number of real-life photojournalists then active in Rome, including Rino Barillari and Felice Quinto. Marcello Geppetti (1933-1998) also undoubtedly served as a model, and it is from his astonishing archive of over a million images that most of the works on display are drawn. Early in his career, Geppetti sent his photographs to press agencies, gaining a reputation both for the technical quality of his images and his talent for capturing dramatic, eye-catching moments. He was employed by the Meldolesi-Canestrelli-Bozzer agency, then one of the most high-profile of its kind, before going freelance. Ironically, Geppetti made his name with harrowing images of a fire at the Hotel Ambasciatori on Via Veneto: the very street that would later provide him with arresting imagery of a quite different nature, as he travelled along it on his scooter on the lookout for celebrities.

Geppetti’s photographs feature the biggest stars of the day, from Brigitte Bardot to Clint Eastwood, from Sophia Loren to Rock Hudson. Many capture moments when, as has been said, ‘the ordinary coexisted with the extraordinary’, as in his image of Liz Taylor wandering with a friend through the streets of Cinecittà dressed as Cleopatra, or the actor Mickey Hargitay riding down the Via Veneto on horseback. Undoubtedly, one of his most famous shots is that of Richard Burton kissing Liz Taylor while holidaying in Ischia, a photograph recently listed among the thirty most famous images in history, alongside works by Andy Warhol and Cecil Beaton. In fact, his work has been seen as transcending the somewhat negative public image of this type of imagery, Geppetti having been described as ‘the most undervalued photographer in history’ by American Photo; his photographs have also been compared to those of Cartier-Bresson and Weegee.

As is clear from some of the images on view, celebrities considered the behaviour of the paparazzi as intrusive then as they do today. One photograph captures the actor Franco Nero in the act of assaulting Geppetti’s fellow paparazzo, Rino Barillari, at the Trevi Fountain, while another series of images show Anita Ekberg in her stockinged feet confronting another paparazzo with a bow and arrow before attacking him with her fists.

Of a quite different nature are the intimate series of images by Arturo Zavattini (b. 1930) who, from the 1950s, worked as a cameraman and director of photography for a number of filmmakers, including Vittorio De Sica and Paolo Nuzzi. Today Zavattini looks after an archive dedicated to the work of his father Cesare (1902-1989), the celebrated screenwriter and pioneer of Neo-realism. Obtained with the full consent of Fellini, these remarkable photographs capture an atmosphere of relaxed creativity and shared artistic vision between cast and crew on the set of the director’s landmark film. Ironically, this cinematic masterpiece addresses, in part, the notion of celebrity.

Revealing the public, professional and private lives of some of the movie industry’s most celebrated actors and actresses, The Years of La Dolce Vita not only provides a candid and evocative snapshot of an era noted for its extraordinary vitality, but also presents a selection of images which, for better or worse, helped to change the face of photojournalism forever.

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square,
London N1 2AN
Tel. +44 (0)20 7704 9522,
+44 (0)20 7704 9522

Opening hours:
Wednesday to Saturday 11.00 to 18.00 hours.
Sunday 12.00 to 17.00 hours
Late-night opening the first Thursday of the month until 21.00 hours
Closed Mondays and Tuesdays
Shop: open gallery hours.
Library: by appointment only

£5.00, concessions £3.50, National Art Pass holders £2.50, includes permanent collection and temporary exhibitions
Free to under-16s and students on production of a valid NUS card
Library, by appointment only, £2.50 per visit

Groups of 10 or more may book gallery talks by curatorial staff on the current exhibition and the permanent collection. Talks last for approximately 50 minutes and there is an additional charge of £70 per group. Lunch can also be arranged.

About the author

Aksel Ritenis

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